Why a Visit to Copenhagen Gave Me Slightly More Hope for Denver’s Transport System

The safe and easily navigable streets of Denmark's largest metro area are not some magical accident in a far away land. They're the result of pragmatic decision-making.

A father with a bike full of stuff, kid in tow. Photo: David Sachs
A father with a bike full of stuff, kid in tow. Photo: David Sachs

I wasn’t alive when the car came to dominate American cities and towns. That’s just how it’s always been for me and most of the country’s populace, whether we drive or not. As Americans we have about as much say in living under the rule of the automobile as we do over a birthmark.

But with more than 40,000 people dying yearly in our car-centric system, it feels like a scar.

I recently visited Copenhagen, a place where kids are born into a society with different values. Those values equate to far fewer people dying just trying to move around. Those values have created a built environment that engenders healthy people who don’t have to sink $8,500 a year into owning a car. They can get to work, school, and the grocery store reliably without one.

Despite reading and writing about the biking, walking, and transit feats of Copenhagen, the Coloradan in me had always assumed some level of hyperbole. That attitude began dissipating when I stepped off the plane to see a protected bike lane at the airport. I took the automated train underground and into the city.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

Those were the first of innumerable mouth-dropping moments I had about Copenhagen’s transport infrastructure. My American friends endured my awe for four days while we biked, walked, and transited seamlessly around an unfamiliar city.

We wheeled around on a network of 242 miles worth of stress-free bikeways. Seemingly never-ending raised bike lanes whooshed us through affluent neighborhoods and underprivileged ones, alongside car traffic, safely taking us anywhere we wanted to go. Kids rode alongside cargo bikes full of groceries, furniture, and even lumber. Bike signals made navigating the system a cinch.

Both of my friends like to bike, but they primarily drive at home in Denver. One told me he felt more comfortable biking on foreign streets than on Downing Street. In other words, H.C. Andersens Boulevard, Copenhagen’s heavily trafficked, six-lane central arterial, felt safer than a two-lane neighborhood street in Denver.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

When walking, people on bikes deferred to us. “It’s okay, you have the right of way!” one local on a bike exclaimed after my buddy apologized for crossing his path. Short crossings, long pedestrian signals, and pedestrian islands on wider streets made walking places easy. Because street designs prioritized pedestrians, few people crossed against signals or mid-block. They didn’t have to — unlike on Colfax and Federal, where wide, infrequent crossings mean risking life and limb to swiftly arrive at your destination.

A Copenhagen taxi driver told me that getting his driver’s license depended on a strict deference for people walking and biking. That attitude played out on the streets, where hyper-aware drivers patiently waited for people walking and biking to clear intersections before turning — instead of trying to “beat” them with a me-first maneuver.

Copenhagen residents walked, biked, or took transit for 67 percent of all trips in 2014. In 2016 the number of bikes surpassed the number of cars. More than 50 percent of the city’s commute trips happen on a bike. In Denver, 73 percent of all commute trips are by car.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

But there’s a silver lining. Copenhagen’s transport system did not happen by accident. The success it enjoys today resulted from deliberate policy decisions in the 60s and 70s to invest in biking and walking infrastructure, pedestrianize streets, reduce parking area by 3 percent per year, and reject an American-style highway system that threatened the city’s vitality.

Denver has different decisions to make. For example, the Hancock and Hickenlooper administrations’ disastrous plan to pave over low-income, majority-Latino neighborhoods to expand I-70 should be the first thing to go. And if Denver is to have a streets renaissance, the process will have to be inclusive and contextual.

But seeing Copenhagen first hand reminded me that we’re not knotted to car dependence just because that’s how it’s been for a while. Our current plight of traffic, pollution, poor public health, and crash-related deaths is solvable with bold policy decisions and investments to swing the status quo.

It’s easy to claim projects like bus rapid transit on Colfax and the Broadway redesign are dead on arrival because America. It’s more challenging, but a lot more helpful, to see Denver at a fork in the road like Copenhagen once was, with a chance to take the smart path.

As we know, the results can be moving.

Bike parking at Copenhagen Central Train Station. Photo: David Sachs
Bike parking at Copenhagen Central Train Station. Photo: David Sachs

IMG_2352Photo: David Sachs

People walking and riding only on this bridge. Photo: David Sachs
People walking and riding only on this bridge. Photo: David Sachs


  • TakeFive

    Easily one of the best pieces I’ve read on Streetsblog Denver. Genuine, informative and (almost) entirely devoid of talking points makes for an interesting, fresh read. I also found Sarah Goodyear’s writing quite interesting. How much Denver might change over the next five decades I wouldn’t even venture a guess.

    There are many similarities between the two cities but there’s one glaring difference. Over 73% of Copenhagen’s population is of Danish descent who generally practice the same (Lutheran) religion. It’s not the specific religious beliefs but rather how it fosters the same cultural groupthink that makes a yuge difference.

    • Bernard Finucane

      That’s nonsense. Groupthink is alive and well in America.

    • Brian Schroder

      I agree. You can compare the cities infrastructure, but you can’t compare their values and their beliefs. The design of American cities and suburbs are not just a product of government policies, but a product of consumerism, corporate influence and American values.

    • Frank Kotter

      Meh. Amsterdam and Rotterdam are as ethnically, and spiritually diverse as you could get with a massive Protestant/Catholic divide in the native populations. Both these cities have a modal share of ped/cycling similar to COP. Paris, a city not exactly a city known for homogeneity, is also beginning to take actions to get people out of cars.

      If it really was a diverse background not allowing groupthink, then why does 99.9 percent of people in Houston travel by car? There’s no better example of groupthink from an exceptionally diverse population in my opinion.

  • TakeFive

    Compare and Contrast? Priceless!

    “Now this is mobility,” declares the motorist, who’s shooting a video off his phone.“I’m in an air-conditioned steed, driving forty miles per hours, and so are thousands of other hard-working Americans.” He pans his phone to the shoulder. “Six lanes each side, and we have plenty of sagebrush over here. We could make it twelve on each side. More lanes, better.”

  • Denverdant

    In considering bike and pedestrian infrastructure in European cities like Copenhagen it’s important to keep in mind that the EU taxes gasoline at a much higher level than in the U.S. When gas is $7.50 per gallon rather than $2.50 per gallon it’s a lot easier to sell people on walking, biking and taking transit. It’s also a lot easier to pay for the necessary infrastructure, or for that matter for routing intercity highways around cities rather than through them. Taxation at the necessary level, however, would have to be imposed at the national, or at least at the state, level. In theory you could do it at the local level but if the price differential is $5 per gallon people will just drive to a nearby town to gas up.

    • Camera_Shy

      Except that not all European cities have such excellent bike infrastructure as Copenhagen and Amsterdam do. So, at whatever level cities/countries tax their gasoline (high like Europe, or low like USA), some cities are able to make it work better for bikes and some are not. I see this more as a result of how cities spend versus how they tax…

      • USbike

        I definitely agree, and would add to it that the national policy very much has and continues to define and shape the mobility and transportation in one’s country. I’m now living in the SW county of Zeeland in the Netherlands, close to the Belgian border. As soon as you cross over, you can instantly notice a big difference in the quality of the roads, signage and land-use development in general. Whereas the Dutch would build a completely barrier-separated bicycle path located quite some distance from the highway, there are a good number of stretches on the Belgian ones where cyclists get a narrow, painted lane on the right side of what would be the equivalent of a highway shoulder in the US. Sometimes this even bends right up against the right-most highway lane. It’s the same story when you cross over from the Netherlands into Germany. While German roads are considerably better than Belgian ones, the bicycle infrastructure is much less so than Dutch ones.

    • SFnative74

      Charge the true cost and habits will change. Gas is way too cheap in the US and Canada.

  • Brent

    Seems disingenuous to not have a single mention of land use in a comparative post on transportation mode shares/approaches between two very different cities.

    For apples to apples, let’s take OECD data (https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=CITIES):

    Denver Metropolitan Population Density = 125.4 persons/square kilometer
    Copenhagen Metropolitan Population Density = 495.9 persons/square kilometer

    Put simply, until we dramatically change our approach to land use, the average person here just has a lot farther to travel. What works there will not work the same here.

    • David B

      I don’t know if Mr Sachs visited any of Denmark outside Copenhagen, but I have, and it’s generally lower density than rural Colorado, yet has the same kind of bicycling infrastructure and bikes/pedestrians first attitude as the cities do. I would also guess that land person density would increase in Denver with safer cycling.

  • Brian Schroder

    It takes a lot more than just public policy to change from a car-centric culture to one of public transportation. It would mean a dramatic shift in American “values” from I have to get ahead to how can we all get ahead.

    • Alan

      The problem in a nutshell, couldnt have put it together myself. Denmark has the highest per capita taxes in the world and even pay students stipends to study let along charge any tuition. It’s also an incredibly small homogenous society

  • nwestergaard

    Notice that in all the pictures Mr. Sachs used to illustrate his story on Copenhagen, the streets where protected bike lanes are located are devoid of onstreet car parking, something I became acutely aware of when I visited Denmark a year ago. Copenhagen made a choice with that design, a good one. Denver appears unwilling to do so. We could accommodate more bike lanes on busy streets in Denver, like Broadway, if we simply bit the bullet and put the bike lanes where cars are parked now. Where we’ve done that, like on 15th Street downtown, it works pretty well and cars and through-traffic are both accommodated. Ah, but that would not accomplish the social engineering goals of some in the biking community to convert the citizenry to their way of thinking whether they like it or not.

  • SFnative74

    Copenhagen Amsterdam Utrecht Malmo and many other cities in the immediate area have made great investments in smart efficient transport, and the results show! Another lesson US Mayor’s and governors can learn – put highways AROUND cities, not right down the middle of them. For quality of life reasons, to not tear down existing homes and neighborhoods, to allow prime real estate near the center of the city to thrive and be developable, and to support an approach that fast auto traffic belongs on the fringe of a livable city. People want to live and travel in comfort and without fear in their city center, and business and life will then thrive there.

  • Emmeaki

    People wouldn’t be so fat in the U.S. if they biked and walked more. Sit on your ass in a car to and from work, sit on your ass at work, then go home and sit on your ass in front of the TV. No exercise whatsoever, not to mention the isolation and disconnection from society and nature. I’m happy I don’t drive.